Tuesday, September 27, 2005

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So how's the public diplomacy thing going?

Karen Hughes, the under secretary for public diplomacy, is in the middle of a "listening tour" of the Middle East. Guy Dinmore reports in the Financial Times on how it's going.

The stop in Saudi Arabia was apparently quite an eye-opener:

Indignant Saudi women on Tuesday turned the tables on Karen Hughes, the US under secretary for public diplomacy, rejecting her analogy of them as the “broken wing” of a bird that the US will help fly....

Mrs Hughes, better known as the long-time communications guru for President George W. Bush, began the “open dialogue” before several hundred women at Dar al-Hekma university by introducing herself as a “working mom”.

She went on to talk about the importance the US attaches to freedom and welcomed a new Saudi labour law that is supposed to open up more job opportunities for women....

Students and teachers lined up at the microphones to express in perfect English their indignance at the stereo-typing of Saudi women as living in a closed society, unable to work or drive or vote. They also slammed the US media for spreading such an image, notably one Oprah Winfrey show that they said presented a Saudi woman beaten by her husband together with the message that theirs was a country to be avoided.

“We are happy, not just content, but happy,” one student objected.

Mrs Hughes quickly replied that she thought Arab women were strong and intelligent, but stuck to her guns, saying that Americans “take their freedom very seriously”, and that means speech, religion, voting and driving – for work and shopping.

Doesn't sound great -- but read this section, and consider the possible sample bias:

Afterwards, the young women – many from wealthy families who spend their summers in the west – were eager to give interviews, explaining why driving was not such a big deal for them, and that the right to vote would come eventually.

“We don’t want the US to force us to bring change,” said one teacher. “They did not allow the blacks to vote before, and now they are forcing the world to accept their views.”

Students described Mrs Hughes as “very kind” and “friendly”, but begged to differ on her views. “I go out with my driver. I go to the beach. I don’t feel caged in,” said one student. “People think we go on camels and live in tents.”

When pressed, they admitted that they would like the right to drive and vote but insisted that reform would come at Saudi Arabia’s pace and choosing. Some complimented King Abdullah for his gradual reform efforts, saying he wanted women to drive but that many conservatives in Saudi society did not.

UPDATE: If this Josh Marshall post is accurate, then the FT has downgraded Hughes from Minister of Propaganda to her actual title.

posted by Dan on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM


People may find it difficult to accept that a gilded cage is a cage nonetheless.

And then there's the phenomenon of the Stockholm syndrome.

Or they could be right.

At any rate, I bet that most of those rich Saudi women have traveled more than Karen Hughes, who's always struck me as a bit of a 'no high-faluntin' booklearnin' for me' know-nothing type.

I'm ready to be corrected.

posted by: Pete on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

I can't believe there's not a class issue here.

For the "wealthy women who spend summers in the west" it's not a big deal to hire a driver. For working class or even middle class families, hiring a servant for an unnecessary chore has got to be a real financial hardship.

Maybe the lower classes are also socially conservative and don't mind making this sacrifice, but the Saudis at this forum are by no means a representative sample of the society as a whole.

Still an interesting article.

posted by: Carl on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

...Karen Hughes, who's always struck me as a bit of a 'no high-faluntin' booklearnin' for me' know-nothing type.

From her State Dept bio:

Ms. Hughes is a Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude graduate of Southern Methodist University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Journalism.

Consider yourself corrected.

posted by: rosignol on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

Do these women not have any qualms about their family keeping a man in servitude to do their driving? I'm willing to bet that their driver's wife can't afford to hire someone to give her the same freedom of movement.

posted by: tony on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

The drivers wifes are still in Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt or where-ever they came from.

More entertaining was a proposal voiced within the last year to extend driving rights to women on the basis of religion. Since women must drive with these foreign drivers, they are exposing themselves to the unwanted gazes of men not-of-their-family. I can't find the link off-hand, but I thought that was a clever way to press the issue on their own terms.

posted by: Cyril on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

Well, it is useful to understand Saudi society.

First, you can be assured that Saudi lower classes are intensely conservative, far more so than the elite who in fact are often not at all.

Second, Saudis do not work as drivers, so you can lay aside concerns about poor Saudi women being deprived of a husband to drive her. The people who do that work are the sub-Cons, the IndoPaks, and the Egyptians (as well as Nigerians, etc). Hiring such labour in KSA is not much of a financial hardship, as the IndoPaks, Egyptians and Africans work for ridiculously small wages. The poor Saudis are rather less effected by such things of course, but as things tend to be done 'in clan' for the time being there is not much social pressure in this area.

All in all, one needs to know the socio-economic structure - it's rather different so your reflex assumptions are going to be rather off.

(This aside, I would not defend the ridiculous ban on driving, although it is such a stupid Saudi thing I feel moved to remind all that it is only a Saudi thing and not a general MENA region rule)

posted by: Lounsbury on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

I have to say this is pretty much what I was afraid of from Karen Hughes -- an approach aimed at sounding appealing to an American audience, with its impact on foreign audiences a more or less secondary consideration. Off Ms. Hughes' past record, the one difference we can expect to see from recent PD efforts is relentless repetition of the same themes she is using this week, by multiple US officials: the theory being that if plausible arguments are repeated often enough they will eventually be believed.

This works in election campaigns, and has for a very long time. The reason it works is that election campaigns end -- a theme only has to be believed until the votes are cast. There is no deadline in public diplomacy. Apart from that, I have never quite understood why the vital interests of the United States require that rich Saudi women have the legal right to drive. The vital interests of an administration looking for a message that will appeal to the typical Today Show viewer in the Cleveland or Kansas City suburbs, maybe.

posted by: Zathras on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

To be fair, there is an economic argument that the ban on driving is imposing a dead weight loss on the economy.

That being said, this is an issue that is effectively far less important to vital interests than say liberalising the domestic Saudi economy, etc., addressing issues of teaching Wahhabite ultra-extremism in schools, etc.

However, it does play well to the TV audience and the busy-body types.

posted by: Lounsbury on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

This has been hinted at above, but just to make it plain: Saudis don't do menial labor because they don't have to. The rulers spread the oil revenue around enough to make sure that everyone can have an acceptable standard of living even without a job. As a result, Saudis don't have to do work they don't like, and since few people like menial labor, they import people from other countries to do it for them.

I used to know a black Sudanese guy who'd spent some time in Saudi Arabia, and this was one of the main reasons he didn't like the place.

posted by: Crane on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

It has always struck me as the height of cultural imperialism for the US to impose our standards of sexual and gender behavior on other countries.

The role of women in the desert countries of the Middle East is a result of the ecology of humans in a land of few resources and many wars. It may not fit today in Saudi Arabia but it is for them to change.

The US should not make it a policy to spread feminism around the globe - it is no longer fully accepted even domestically.

That said, the sample was obviously setup for political reasons by the Saudis.

posted by: Whitehall on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

This was a hand picked group. This was all typical Bush window dressing with no substance. Hughes expected these woman to cheer simply because America must be what everyone aspires to. These woman have a culture, they have national loyalty, they don't actually feel oppressed. Maybe many there do but they certainly are not the type of people who would be invited to this event. And because Hughes has absolutely no understanding of their culture she came off as the stupid American. They went totally and unexpectedly off script and she lacks the insight into why it happened or that it actually could happen. She would not have been more surprised if Cindy Sheehan had popped out of a cake holding a peace sign.

posted by: Footie on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

"Ms. Hughes is a Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude graduate of Southern Methodist University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Journalism."

Hm. That pretty much confirms my statement. The woman seems as dumb as a truck and she has the ear of the POTUS. The best way forward is getting rid of oil dependency, turning oil into a virtually worthless commodity. Then the Saudis would actually have to *do* something. An idle brain is the devil's workshop, as 18 Saudis proved with remarkable force on 9/11.

posted by: Pete on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

I would never want any of my female relatives to have to live in Saudia Arabia, but I agree with Zathras: why is this issue taking center stage in US-Saudi relations? Not only is it really none of our business, it is bound to be counter productive. As soon as Saudi women are made to feel that they are being used by the US as a club to beat Saudi society as a whole, they are bound to turn resentful and their sense of pride as Saudis is bound to trump their interests as women.

Many have said that the issue is not perceptions of American policy towards the Middle East, but the substance of that policy. That may be true, but a "public diplomat" could still be of service. Just because US policy is wrong doesn't mean that the alternatives popular in the region are right. Invading Iraq was a bad idea. But if the US hadn't invaded Iraq, would the place be a paradise today? What do people in the region think of the legacy of Saddam Husein? Do they remember his invasion of Kuwait? His statements since the end of the war reiterating his claim that it is a province of Iraq? What do they make of the fact that the majority of civilians killed in Iraq are killed by al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia? Is the carnage really entirely the fault of the US? What would the best solution for the Iraqi people be at this point? What do Middle Easterners think of the corruption of Arafat and the PA? Do they stand behind suicide bombing? Do they think this strategy has helped the Palestinian cause? What do they make of the fact that groups like Hamas call for the destruction of Israel and not land for peace? How do they expect Israel to react in the face of that threat.

Public diplomacy is not going to convince most Middle Easterners that the US is right, but it could at least get some of them to acknowledge the complexity of the issues and to confront the idiocy of the conspiracy theories that pass there as analysis.

posted by: Ken on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

There is a theory that the biggest public diplomacy problem we have is only indirectly related to what American policy is or the language with which it is justified. The core of the problem is that foreign audiences here so little of American views, interests and objectives as to create a vacuum that demands filling. Some of the filling is done by people who do not wish us well; some of it is done more innocently with elaborate conspiracy theories and thoroughgoing nonsense.

I think I've made clear I'm not a fan of Karen Hughes, but in fairness this is a problem that will exist for us somewhere under any circumstances. People faced with things they feel they must understand do not typically adopt the scientific method of inquiry; if an explanation is not readily available they will make one up, or give credence to other people who make one up. We can counter that with more aggressive public diplomacy rooted in matter-of-fact explanations of American objectives and interests, putting declarations of American values in the background -- this would be my preferred approach, because I think it will be more readily believed by foreign audiences who may not understand our values but are familiar with their own governments pursuing national interests.

Alternatively we can try more aggressive public diplomacy that talks about our values first and maintains relentless message discipline as to the way we do this, while leaving discussion of American interests to be dragged out of our senior officials when they have nothing else to say. This is Ms. Hughes' approach. I do not think it will work, but it is the one being pursued now.

posted by: Zathras on 09.27.05 at 10:30 PM [permalink]

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